By Matt Wellens
Seven weeks ago, eight coaches and captains gathered at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul for NCHC Media Day to answer a broad range of questions from reporters.
Some were serious — What do you think of the NCAA’s more open transfer rules? — and others were just downright silly — What kind of summer job have you worked in the past?
In between, every coach and captain is asked at some point what they think of their team going into the season, which can be a tough question to answer in the middle of September.
With conference play revving up in the NCHC this weekend, here’s a look back at what was said in St. Paul seven weeks ago, and where teams actually stand as the race for the Penrose Cup gets underway, going in reverse of where teams were picked by the media to finish in the league this season.
“We have to be able to defend. Simply, we want to give up less than three goals and score north of three, and then you do the math. Now that’s way easier said than done.” — first-year RedHawks coach Chris Bergeron
The RedHawks, who open NCHC play this weekend at North Dakota, are halfway to where they want to be. They’ve scored three or more goals in five of seven games to start, but have given up three or more in six of seven.
Miami’s penalty kill has struggled early at just 75.8 percent while goaltenders Ryan Larkin and Ben Kraws have a combined .876 save percentage. Larkin, a senior who’s made five starts, posted a shutout two weeks ago in a 2-0 win at Colgate.
“We’ll be really young. We got a lot of freshmen and sophomores, but it’s also an opportunity to grow and continue to evolve and develop.” — Mavs coach Mike Gabinet
Denver coach David Carle said this week, “It’s nice to learn while winning,” and that’s what Gabinet’s rookies are doing in Omaha. The Mavericks swept Alabama Huntsville at home and then went on the road to split at Ohio State and get a win and tie at Alaska Anchorage.
The Mavs, who don’t open NCHC play until next weekend at Western Michigan, are giving up less than two goals per game and getting balanced scoring from the 12 players who’ve found the back of the net already. Three of those are freshmen.
Colorado College (2-3-1)
“He looks great. It looks like he’s back to where he was his sophomore year, which is a great thing to see and certainly we could use him. We were counting on him and some other guys, but certainly your top guys you want them to lead.” — Tigers coach Mike Haviland on Nick Halloran returning
Halloran, now a senior, missed the second half of his junior season with a hip injury. An All-American as a sophomore, he posted 19 goals and 26 assists to finish third among NCHC scorers.
Healthy again, Halloran has a goal and five assists through six games this year for the Tigers, who opened NCHC play last weekend with a loss and tie at home against Western Michigan. Halloran’s first and only goal so far this season came Friday against the Broncos. That was his only point in the early NCHC series.
St. Cloud State (1-2-3)
“I expect a breakout year in college hockey for him. I really do. I think this year he’s grown to the point where he wants to demand that the net is his, that he’s not going to give it up.” — Huskies coach Brett Larson on junior goaltender David Hrenak
Hrenak, a second-team All-NCHC pick behind the Bulldogs’ Hunter Shepard last year, has struggled early, recording an .884 save percentage and 3.24 goals against average in six starts. He faced 30-plus shots per night in each of the Huskies first three games, although over the last three SCSU has limited opponents to under 25. That includes last weekend when Hrenak gave up 10 goals on 47 shots in a home loss and tie with Princeton.
Back in September, Larson referenced a pair of “talented” incoming freshmen goalies — Joey Lamoreaux of Shorewood, Wis., and Jaxon Carter of Phoenix — who could push Hrenak, but Larson has yet to go to either. The Huskies have one more nonconference series at Northern Michigan before opening NCHC play next weekend against Colorado College at home.
North Dakota (5-1-1)
“We struggled a little bit, putting the puck in the net, and also our nonconference play. Normally we’re a pretty good nonconference team on finishing games and winning games. We stumbled a little bit on that side of it, which cost us.” — Fighting Hawks coach Brad Berry
A year ago the Hawks were swept in Buffalo, N.Y., by Canisius just after New Years, getting held to a single goal each night. Nonconference weekends like that — and a season opening loss and tie against Bemidji State when again the Hawks were held to just one goal each night — are what kept them out of the NCAA tournament.
North Dakota seemed to put both of its concerns — scoring and nonconference letdowns against weaker opponents — behind it the opening weekend of the season when it swept Canisius 5-1 and 5-0. UND also took out Bemidji State two weeks ago 2-1 and 4-1. The Hawks enter NCHC play this weekend at home against Miami having beaten Michigan Tech 3-1 in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game.
Western Michigan (3-3-2)
“We know we’re going to score. We have a lot of guys that can score, forwards and defense, so if we can play defense first, I think we’ll definitely do something big.” — Broncos senior forward Hugh McGing
The jury is still out on this goal for 2019-20, but the Broncos are actually showing more consistency on defense, holding opponents to two or fewer goals in five of their eight games. Meanwhile, scoring has been up and down, possibly in part to senior forward and 2016 Philadelphia Flyers second-round draft pick Wade Allison again being out due to injury. He’s missed the last four games.
The Broncos began conference play last weekend on the road with a couple of shootouts — literally and figuratively — against Colorado College, winning 6-3 on Friday and taking a shootout Saturday after a 4-4 tie.
“We’re returning a lot of our group so we feel that we have a really good chance to do something special. Of course the goal is always to win a national championship and that’s definitely where our mindset is right now.” — junior defenseman Ian Mitchell
The Pioneers, who come to Duluth this weekend to open NCHC play, sure have been special, scoring road sweeps at Alaska (Fairbanks) and Lake Superior State, followed by home sweeps of Boston College and Niagara. The offense is averaging a league-best 4.12 goals per game. Defensively, DU is allowing 1.62 goals per game (second to North Dakota); the power play is at 22 percent (third); and penalty kill leads the NCHC at 97.1 percent.
The Pioneers brought a lot back from last year’s team that finished an OT goal short of playing UMD for the NCAA title. The one exception is in goal, but Filip Larsson’s replacement, freshman Magnus Chrona, has been stellar with a .925 save percentage, 1.86 goals against average and two shutouts in seven starts.
Minnesota Duluth (3-3)
“We’re not probably going to be a super high scoring team.” — Scott Sandelin
Minus the 5-2 win at Minnesota two weeks ago, that has for sure been the case for the Bulldogs. They have been limited to two goals in four of their six games and a single goal in another. But scoring is and never was going to be the Bulldogs’ key to success this season, which is why after lamenting in Madison the fact his team only had seven goals in four games, Sandelin changed course days later back in Duluth and started harping on his team’s play defensively. The Bulldogs then swept the Gophers by scoring seven goals in the series and also limiting the opposition to just two.
Like the Huskies’ David Hrenak, the reigning NCHC Goaltender of the Year, UMD senior goalie Hunter Shepard, hasn’t posted the numbers he’s looking for with a .899 save percentage and 2.34 goals against average. But Shepard did begin moving in the right direction on Oct. 26 with a 21-save shutout of the Gophers — the 16th of his career.